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4 Essential Ways To Save The Earth : Part 5 (Final)

Keith Farnish | 02.07.2006 20:39 | Ecology

This 5th and final part (all parts available on The Earth Blog) show the fundamental role that personal and community action will have to play in giving the Earth a future.

I strongly believe that humans are essentially short-term survivors. As a consequence, in the technological age, they act selfishly; only seeming to be interested in their own desperate race to achieve whatever they perceive as happiness at that time.

But, unless those who are responsible for creating the global environmental crisis change, then nothing will change. This means everyone with an Ecological Footprint of more than one Earth bringing it down to a sustainable level.

Some will change simply through the raising of consciousness.

Some will change given sufficient information about what they should do.

But most people will not change without external pressure.

The pressure will not come about on its own which is why the three essential ways of saving the earth that came before are so critical:

Research gives us the information on why and what we need to change.

Political Action gives us the organisation to enact the change.

Legal Action gives us the power to create and make the change.

There is a complex web of mechanisms that can bring about mass, even global, change and which operate at many different levels. This section will look at what are potentially the most effective ones for changing human behaviour.

I can imagine 7 key ways in which people and communities might be mobilised to care, change and maybe do both at the same time:

1. Legal action
2. Negative economic pressure
3. Positive economic pressure
4. Environmental awareness
5. Positive information
6. Formal education
7. Community action

Legal action has been covered in the previous section in some detail, but because the legal system is generally geared towards action against the individual can be very effectively used, in much the same way as described earlier, against entire populations. In England, for example, the presence of Green Belts, which have legal protection from urban development, came about because of a concerted effort by environmental groups who wanted to protect the beauty of the countryside from urban sprawl. There is most definitely an ecological case for green belts throughout the world, especially where delicate habitats such as wetlands and woodlands are threatened by individuals who wish to move into "the countryside" and developers who want to take advantage of the high profits such demand can make.

Legal action on its own is powerful enough to change some habits, but you cannot legislate against environmentally damaging behaviour that is seen as acceptable by the majority of people. However, as the next six items demonstrate, when you have a pair of complementary factors, then real change really might take place.

Much has been written about the socially divisive nature of taxes, and rightly so; for where taxes exist to fulfil a policy guided by economic growth, profit and “trickle down” economics it will almost always be the poor person who suffers disproportionately in terms of the type of life they are able to lead. This form of negative economic pressure (negative in the sense of cost to the individual) can, however, be a truly equitable and beneficial way of changing behaviour. For example, applying a high rate of road tax (vehicle excise duty) to those vehicles that produce the most greenhouse gases may be seen as doubly penalising those who already pay fuel tax based on how much fuel they consume; but by only penalising those vehicles that demonstrably produce far more pollution than similarly sized low-pollution vehicles it is actually only the human behaviour that is being penalised. There may be a few exceptions where for essential work or other reasons, a large vehicle is required, and exceptions can be granted – but overall the system will only penalise those who choose to pollute. If the same logic could be applied to flying on a global scale then a future horror could be avoided entirely.

But taxes are seen as a tool of state control – a way of telling people how to lead their lives. I say: "if it’s to save the planet, then so be it," but governments have been elected in and elected out on the basis of a single tax cut or rise. To make some taxes acceptable they have to also be ring-fenced. Ring-fencing, or hypothecation, is a method of moving tax gains to a pre-determined fund, e.g. the extra money from large SUVs funding research into better vehicle fuel efficiency. If people are ever going to accept the need for draconian, environmentally related taxes, then they must be ring-fenced and correctly targeted to fulfil the needs of that measure, not the desires of the Treasury.

The great thing about ring-fencing is that the environment can benefit twice – once from the target of the tax, and then from the way in which this money is spent. And where should this money be spent? On positive economic pressure.

There are many forms that this can take; including sales tax removal on "good" products (such as home insulation or recycled products), grants for micro-generation (mini wind turbines or solar panels) or improving the efficiency of industry, major investments in renewable energy generation, or local government measures such as cheaper public transport. All of these drive home the message that the tax raising authority is not trying to harm the individual financially, but merely move the money to benefit the environment in ways that the individual could even benefit from themselves, if they chose to take advantage of it. The key to acceptance is making the link between negative and positive.

Nowhere is this more important than in the mass media, be it television, magazines or the Internet. The mass media consistently surveys as either the first or second most important source of health, environmental and educational information (alternating with friends, family and neighbours), with more authoritative sources such as universities and government outlets rarely featuring highly. As a source for environmental awareness, the mass media (which also, of course, informs those friends, family and neighbours that these people go to) is key.

A recent (2006) example was the BBC Television programme "Are We Changing Planet Earth?" This was hosted by the veteran nature broadcaster David Attenborough who, by virtue his popularity, managed to attract 22% of the peak time audience – very impressive for an overtly environmental documentary. This was backed up by a range of radio shows and Internet information with a common theme - Climate Chaos. Now of that 5.28 million people, how many would actually do something about their behaviour as a result of watching that one television programme? I would guess, very few. The same applies to newspaper articles that bemoan the damage being done to our planet, and blogs that only give bad news. What would you do if you were told that a relative had an incurable disease?

But the BBC did not just stop with the bad news; they had a potential cure! The follow-up programme, called "Can We Save Planet Earth?" went into considerable detail about how, on both large and small scales, changes can be made. Another 5 million people watched it. Positive information is critical if the listener/viewer/reader who is concerned about subject matter is to do something about it. If you know the cure for your relative’s disease you are damn well going to try and get hold of it. The environment may not be as high on most people's list of priorities, but at least given a balance of environmental awareness (bad news) and positive information, there is at least a chance of something happening. The 2003 Greenpeace film "Alien Invasion" was funny, interesting and most importantly of all, provided a flash of positive information at the end. All campaigns should be like this.

Formal education is essentially an extension of environmental awareness, but whereas the media watcher is free to ignore whatever is shown to them, a student at school is in a dedicated learning environment. So, providing the curriculum is geared towards providing that information – and that is where political pressure can be used – the student stands a good chance of picking up valuable knowledge (note the distinction from information) about vital issues. But there is a problem.

Up to a certain age parents wield a great deal of power over their children’s opinions, particularly if the opinions of the parent are overtly negative towards an issue, such as race, sexuality or the environment. Knowledge gained at school can be easily countered by parents of young children. This, along with the "selective pruning" of unused connections that takes place in adolescence, restrict the chances of carrying such school-based knowledge to adulthood as opinions. But, at a certain point, normally between age 9 and 11 in western societies, peer pressure starts to become more important to children, and as they develop into teenagers their opinions are very much a mirror of those of their peers. Could this be the perfect time to formally educate students with both environmental awareness and positive information?

As the (hopefully) opinionated student becomes a fully-fledged member of a community – in senior years at school, at work or in their neighbourhood – they may be motivated to take part in community action. Community is at the heart of the local environmental movement; whether this takes the form of local fundraising, community awareness, projects to improve the local area, or even the development of a community energy project. Now I don't believe for a minute that one community can change the world; but one community acting as a model for neighbouring communities who in turn influence a far wider area can trigger great positive change. And the community can feed back into schools, giving relevant and positive examples of real action, maybe influencing another generation to go on to greater things.


So there stands the table, standing on its four legs of research, political action, legal action and personal and community action, because the four parts of the solution were used to give the Earth a future, and hence we were given a future.

But in the real world, the one we are in at the moment - where people are driven to compete, achieve, make money and find happiness only in the trappings of the technological age – there is only a glimmer of hope. For in the end, if we humans are not able to change our behaviour and the value we give to the natural environment, on which we are ultimately dependent for our survival, then we are doomed; and we will have chosen to bring this fate upon ourselves.

Keith Farnish
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